Murray wants more investments in community colleges

The top Democrat on the Senate education committee would like to see more investments in community colleges and other institutions that historically serve students who have been underrepresented in higher education.

Speaking Thursday at a Center of American Progress event where she outlined her ideas to rework the Higher Education Act (HEA), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving colleges and other minority-serving institutions “too often are asked to do more with less.”

“They have not received equal resources in the past due to a legacy of discrimination or a lack of prioritization by states or the federal government,” Murray said. “Our HEA reauthorization this time has to do more to support those schools with the resources they need to educate students.”

Four areas to address

Affordability, accountability, access, and student safety and civil rights were the four broad areas Murray would like HEA to address. Murray noted it’s been more than a decade since lawmakers reauthorized the nation’s higher education law, and students today are facing different challenges at home, in school and in the workplace.

Tackling those issues requires comprehensive reform rather than a piecemeal approach, she said. Streamlining the federal student aid application is important — a point that the Republican chair of the Senate education committee has regularly mentioned as a key part of his reauthorization plan — but Congress needs to better leverage its resources to address issues such as societal inequities.

“Everyone who wants to go to college — whether a two- or four-year degree — should have the choice to do so, and should not be saddled with debt as a result,” she said.

Better state-federal partnerships

Such a comprehensive effort would need better state and federal partnerships, particularly in finding ways to “incentivize” states to reinvest in higher education, Murray said. It also should include new investments for need-based student aid, such as Pell grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and work study. Lawmakers also need to address living costs affecting students’ ability to attend college, such as food, transportation, housing and childcare.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the cost of living is the cost of college, and many students are struggling just to meet their essential and most basic needs,” she said.

Serving a wider array of students

In regards to improving access to college, Murray said lawmakers must look at helping an increasingly diverse student population and boost investments for supports that help historically underrepresented students, including students of color, student parents, first-generation college students, homeless and foster youth, women, LGBTQ students and military veterans. Those supports range from career and student aid counseling, to helping students connect with housing and food benefits.

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In terms of addressing accountability, Murray mainly targeted predatory for-profit institutions offering low-quality programs that don’t lead to living-wage jobs.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to these institutions,” said Murray, who also took issue with U.S. Education Betsy DeVos hiring former for-profit college officials and supporters to work at the department.

Negotiations have started

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced in February a plan to rework HEA that, in part, aims to streamline student loan repayment options and improve the college accountability system by extending “gainful employment” rules to all public and private higher education institutions. He would like to introduce HEA legislation this spring, have the Senate approve it this summer and hopefully have a Senate-House compromise bill passed by year’s end.

Murray said she and Alexander have started to negotiate on the issues surrounding HEA. Although she acknowledged she likely won’t get everything she would like, including some of target areas in the reauthorization would “make a big step in the right direction, and make a significant down payment to provide real opportunities for future students,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.